Human Genetics

, Volume 97, Issue 3, pp 319–323

The heritability of human longevity: A population-based study of 2872 Danish twin pairs born 1870–1900


  • Anne Maria Herskind
    • Centre for Health and Social Policy, Institute of Community HealthOdense University
  • Matthew McGue
    • Centre for Twin and Adoption Studies, Department of PsychologyUniversity of Minnesota
  • Niels V. Holm
    • Genetic Epidemiologic Research UnitOdense University
  • Thorkild I. A. Sørensen
    • Danish Epidemiology Science Centre at the Institute of Preventive MedicineUniversity of Copenhagen
  • Bent Harvald
    • Odense University Medical School
  • James W. Vaupel
    • Centre for Health and Social Policy, Institute of Community HealthOdense University
Original Investigation

DOI: 10.1007/BF02185763

Cite this article as:
Herskind, A.M., McGue, M., Holm, N.V. et al. Hum Genet (1996) 97: 319. doi:10.1007/BF02185763


The aim of this study was to explore, in a large and non-censored twin cohort, the nature (i.e., additive versus non-additive) and magnitude (i.e., heritability) of genetic influences on inter-individual differences in human longevity. The sample comprised all identified and traced non-emigrant like-sex twin pairs born in Denmark during the period 1870–1900 with a zygosity diagnosis and both members of the pairs surviving the age of 15 years. A total of 2872 pairs were included. Age at death was obtained from the Danish Central Person Register, the Danish Cause-of-Death Register and various other registers. The sample was almost non-censored on the date of the last follow-up (May 1, 1994), all but 0.6% had died, leaving a total of 2872 pairs for analysis. Proportions of variance attributable to genetic and environmental factors were assessed from variance-covariance matrices using the structural equation model approach. The most parsimonious explanation of the data was provided by a model that included genetic dominance (non-additive genetic effects caused by interaction within gene loci) and non-shared environmental factors (environmental factors that are individual-specific and not shared in a family). The heritability of longevity was estimated to be 0.26 for males and 0.23 for females. The small sex-difference was caused by a greater impact of non-shared environmental factors in the females. Heritability was found to be constant over the three 10-year birth cohorts included. Thus, longevity seems to be only moderately heritable. The nature of genetic influences on longevity is probably non-additive and environmental influences non-shared. There is no evidence for an impact of shared (family) environment.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1996